Combat Ebb and Flow, Feint, and Evaluate

I wrote The Last Gasp in order to put lulls and flurries into combat, among other things. I wrote Delayed Gratification because I didn’t really like Feints much, and introduced the Setup Attack as a notional replacement or supplement.

But I was thinking about Feints and Waits (next week! Melee Academy is May 9!) partially as a response to the conversation that +Justin Aquino started in this thread. Then I started thinking about boxing, kendo, and other situations where there are lulls and flurries.

I’ve noted in the past that Aim is a bit deterministic. Evaluate suffers from a bit of the same problem – you get up to +3 from doing it, and then you’ve evaluated enough and you’re done.

Is there a way short of “I’m so exhausted I have to stop and recover” to model two fighters circling, probing, looking for an opening? What happens when they do that? Well, their weapons don’t become unready, certainly, unless something is truly biffed, maybe. No blows are exchanged. But in the end, when the probing is done, one fighter has detected (or thinks he has detected) an opening.

Hmmm. That sounds an awful lot like what a full-round Feint might be.

A related diversion:

A long time ago (over a year), +Sean Punch  who has a knack for rules tweaks (and he should, it’s his job) threw down casually a post he wrote in ten minutes, that gave an idea about what he called Combat Openings. I dropped him an email asking if he’d mind if I reposted it in full. Naturally he said yes.

Combat Openings

Optionally, on each turn before you attack your opponent, roll on the Hit Location Table (p. B552). The resulting body part is currently a “target of opportunity” for you. It’s presented boldy and easier for you to hit: halve the penalty to hit that location, rounding in your favor, if you deliberately target it right now. The torso can’t be a target of opportunity – if you roll 9-10, roll 1d on the following table instead.

1 – Your foe’s weapon isn’t ideally placed to defend against you. If you attack his weapon right now (to grab it, disarm, etc.), you get +1 to hit and he has -1 to defend. If you try an unarmed grab, his defense can’t injure your hand even if he parries with a weapon. If he’s unarmed, treat this as a presented hand.

2 – Your foe isn’t watching your off hand. If you attack with that hand right now, you get +1 to hit and he has -1 to defend. This includes shield bashes! If you try an unarmed punch, his defense can’t injure your hand even if he parries with a weapon. If you’re using a two-handed weapon, these benefits apply to a blow with the pommel. If you’re grappling him with both hands, treat as 3.

3 – Your foe isn’t watching your feet. If you kick him right now, you get +1 to hit and he has -1 to defend. His defense can’t injure your foot, even if he parries with a weapon. 

4 – Your foe isn’t controlling distance or position well. If you grapple him right now, you have +1 to hit and he has -1 to defend. If you try an unarmed grapple, his defense can’t injure you even if he parries with a weapon. If you’re already grappling him, treat as 5. If he’s grappling you, you have +2 to break free instead. If both conditions apply, you may choose one option.

5 – Your foe is momentarily off-balance. If you make a knockback-only attack (like a shove) right now, you get +2 damage for knockback purposes only. If you try to knock him down with a move that uses a Quick Contest (like a takedown or a Sweep), he has -2 in the Contest instead. If either is an unarmed move, like a barehanded shove or a sweeping kick, his defense can’t injure you even if he parries with a weapon. If he’s on the ground, treat as 3.

6 – No special effect. Somehow, your foe is watching everything and presenting nothing!

These effects only apply to your attacks on that one foe. Nobody else on the battlefield is affected by these roll(s). To take advantage of this turn’s opening, you must act now; you cannot try another attack first, much less wait until a later turn.

Pretty neat, I thought.

Put it Together

What if, instead of the usual Contest of Skills where if the attacker wins, he gets his margin of victory as a straight-up defensive penalty to his next action, we did something else. First, let’s redefine what a Feint is. It’s a deceptive motion used to try and goad or lead your foe into providing you an opening. Feint is such a good name, but I really ought to come up with something else, for clarity. I’ll call it a Probing Feint, with many apologies to those who have ever been probed.

I’m going to throw down a concept, and then pick it apart afterwards.

Probing Feint

This represents deceptive footwork, clever movement of the body, or shifts in posture (but not GURPS Posture), distance, or weapon position designed to draw your foe off guard.

Probing Feint is an Attack Option. Meh. It should probably be what it says: a type of Feint.

Roll a Quick Contest of your weapon skill vs. the best of your foe’s weapon skills. If you win, roll 1d and consult the following table:

1 – Hit Location. Roll the hit location table. Strike that target using grappling penalties, or grapple at no penalty. If Torso is rolled, strike at +2 or grapple at +1 to hit.
2 – Weapon Position. If you attack his weapon, you are at +1 to hit and he is at -1 to defend; if you try and knock it away, you are at +3 in the Contest.
3 – Off hand. See Sean’s #2.
4 – Foot blind. See Sean’s #3.
5 – Distance or Position. You gain an extra yard of movement if you step; if your foe retreats, his bonus is reduced by 1. If you attack to grapple, you do so at +1 and your foe is at -1 to defend.
6 – Balance . See Sean’s #5

If you win the Contest but can’t take advantage of the opportunity – or choose not to – you may treat your maneuver as if you took All-Out Defense.

Margin of Success

Sean’s concept is something that’s meant to provide an extra incentive to vary things up. My version takes his concept and alters it a bit, possibly for the worse. His version usually gives +1 to hit and puts the foe at -1 to defend against a particular kind of attack. That’s sort of the equivalent of a +3 sh) on an attack roll. Pretty light, and you might not be able to take advantage.
Maybe instead of the +1 to hit/-1 to defend thing, we allow a flat adder of margin to the next attack, which can be used as you like – any defensive penalties would come from Deceptive Attack using that bonus. That would provide a variable and potentially large – but aspected – bonus.
Defender Success

Maybe if the defender makes his skill roll, he gets a bonus to his defenses except for the opening. If he makes his roll and loses the contest, perhaps it converts to a +1 to defend for every 2 he makes the roll by (again, excepting the hole in his defenses that the Probing Feint revealed). If he makes his skill roll and wins the Contest, he gets a bonus to defend against everything from that foe. Maybe something like +1 if you make it at all, and for every 4 full points more, you get another +1. So if the defender makes his skill roll by 8, he gets +3 to defend against his for. 
More importantly on this one, his foe knows this. He can see that his opponent is that well protected, has good defenses, isn’t off balance, etc. Some reason not to just wade in and trade blows.
Rapid Strike

Maybe this only makes sense as part of a Rapid Strike. So you Probe at -6, and if you see an opening in the defenses, you can leverage it.
Or maybe you go the other way, and if you win the contest by more than 6, you can convert the hole immediately to an attack by accepting -6 to your bonus. So you roll the Contest and win it by 8. Rolling 1d6 you get a 2. You may immediately attack his weapon at +2, which you may use to cancel out the normal -4 for striking at a weapon a bit, or use it as a -1 Deceptive Attack.

The “I feint, then my foe goes, then I go and take advantage!” thing has never rubbed me right, and I know I’m not alone. The reason, I’m sure, that Sean did it as the first thing you can do during each round is to identify something you can leverage right then.

So maybe the right thing to do is to use this as an Aspected Wait. If you win the Contest, you declare a Wait, and if your foe triggers it, you get to leverage the hole in his defenses. 
Now this, in turn, would only make sense if you’re standing outside the striking range of your weapon. In fact, in Hwa Rang Do Gumtoogi (weapon fighting with swords, either long, short and long, or double short), we used to say that if you were in a certain distance – likely between Reach 1 and Reach 2 – if you weren’t either hitting the other guy at Reach 2, you’d better be closing to Close Combat! So perhaps this should only be used from a Reach at least 1 greater than the maximum of your weapon. I can use the Rapid Strike version to take a Committed Attack with the Long option if I really rock out, or I can take a Wait and leverage the defensive hole if my foe closes in. If I choose to do so, I can convert the Wait to All-Out Defense instead, since I’ve been reading the guy.


Christian reminds me below that I totally left out what might be the best fit of all: Evaluate. Where right now, it gives you a simple +1 for sitting there staring at the battlefield for a moment, there’s every reason to allow it to have even better results. Whether it’s a Perception-based Skill roll, or a flat skill roll, or a contest of skills as I lay down below, triggering this off of an Evaluate makes a lot of sense.

It would be interesting to allow repeated uses of this too – once you’ve picked out an opening in your foe’s defenses, if you keep winning the contest (or he keeps failing his skill roll, which might obviate this entirely) you might get more and more opportunity to exploit that hole.

Parting Shot

Even if what I have here in particular isn’t exactly right – and I know it’s not – I feel like there’s something here. Some combination or modification of Feint, Wait, Evaluate, and maybe even Rapid Strike.
What’s missing, of course, is that GURPS combats take damn long already. You’d need to be pretty happy with doing not much but waiting for your opening for second after second, while other people might be doing stuff around you. That gets boring, and probably the above might just become a lot of crap no one bothers with. 
Still, the overall feel of it seems right – and I have to wonder how it would play in something like +Vaclav Tofl ‘s gladiator game, where the cautious probing – or even showboating while doing so – is a key part of the game.
In a frenzied battle, this wouldn’t happen, and GURPS default combat would be the norm. That also seems right to me, especially combined with The Last Gasp’s Action Points, which would encourage a few frenzied seconds of action, then backing off – if you can – to catch some wind and look around.
Game Timing and Fight Timing

Some of this gets down to a very simple principle, though, which +Peter V. Dell’Orto will have already started typing a response to by the time he gets down this far. While it might be realistic to have two fighters (or twenty…have you seen how many foes he had in his last session?) staring at each other, not trading blows, but making subtle motions and deceptions to try and force a mistake, unless everyone else on the battlemat is doing the same thing, and unless the flurries that come when an opening is found are decisive, the end-of-game report on five blogs will be “we spent an hour rolling dice and not finding openings. This game sucks.”

It’s a hard thing. You want to have a reasonable shot at capturing the detail of combat, since your character’s life is on the line. But if you really map it out, a three-minute round will not have 180 blows exchanged most of the time. A quick peek at a boxing forum shows heavyweight matches typically varying from 30-60 punches per round, with notable excursions to 100 or more. And a lot of those are probably probing jabs (Defensive Attacks), often done as Rapid Strikes, or more likely as Defensive Setup Attacks.

So really, having a mass melee over in fifteen seconds probably isn’t “real.” But it certainly is more fun than standing around a lot, especially when you’re rolling for 20-40 Draugr or something.

13 thoughts on “Combat Ebb and Flow, Feint, and Evaluate

  1. There is something there. The quick skill contest would make sense only in combat where PCs really want to have a finely crafted combat. However, I'm half thinking here that Evaluate as an action would allow to roll on the opening table. Either the opening is valuable and can be exploited (with a bonus of some kind), or the PC elect to convert the action to Do nothing.

  2. The article I have had in my head for next Thursday (curse you, Cole!) involved granting something like a +1 to active defenses while one was Evaluating, to incentivize the use of the maneuver and give more likelihood of combats being more about the probe and dance around. This is a much more complex and finely grained option and I like it a great deal.

  3. I really like these ideas. I agree that this stuff sounds more like what you'd see in a duel situation, where you have plenty of time to evaluate and probe for weaknesses without worrying about other people interrupting your fight. You might also use it in situations where you fear you are outclassed, and you need to make every blow count. In fact, I might rule that once you're in the thick of trading blows, things tend to move too fast to merely probe or evaluate—you've got to act quickly or risk leaving your own openings. So maybe the probing action only makes sense at the beginning of a fight or after a pause a la The Last Gasp. Or maybe failure at a probing action should have really negative consequences—you've so misread the situation that now your opponent has an advantage over you.

    1. I think that if there are too many (or any) negative consequences there would be no cause to use it. This is a nearly-completely game-play concern in my mind. I think the big combat (round 1) in the last Jade Regent/DF game that I was in went through no more than ten or twelve elapsed rounds (and that might have had the round-counter start halfway there) in FOUR HOURS OF PLAY. Let's be generous and say that we got all 12, that's 20 minutes of game-time per second of fight-time. If you're giving up 20 minutes of play in order to maybe get hosed, you're going to Attack or do something useful.

      Game-play time is the most scarce currency there is, I think. Expending mana or fatigue is fun, so long as it has an effect. I'm not saying combat rolls can't turn out badly (they often do, of course), but if you have an opportunity for misreading the target (and that actually has some nice thoughts if you lose a contest), then the benefits that you can get on a win need to be commensurately greater!

    2. So ditch the idea of negative consequences—it was kind of a throwaway thought there at the end. I agree that game time is precious in combat. All the more reason to limit probing/evaluating actions to the beginning of combat or pauses generated by use of Action Points. I don't much like the idea of someone being in the middle of an exchange of blows and suddenly deciding to wait or study their opponent. It doesn't make sense to me. If my enemy did that, I wouldn't just sit there and let him study me, even for a second. I would press my attack. In my mind, such reprieves would need to be created with some kind of defensive action.

    3. Your point about the exchange of blows is an interesting one. It brings back my comment about your victory in this roll impacting something that happens AFTER your foe's turn, on your own next turn, which has always struck me as weird.

      But maybe what you do is do Evaluate, and the bonus only applies to the next action that you OR your foe takes. I'd not want it to be better than taking All-Out Defense (unless we did invoke a negative consequence), but it would be interesting to say "you get some number of benefit points, so to speak, for winning the Contest. If your foe attacks you, they can be applied at +1 to defend for every 2 you've made. If you are unmolested until your next turn, you may use those points to attack and exploit a weakness in your foe."

  4. I'm glad to see my idea getting some play. 🙂 I agree that it would be nice to have more ebb and flow,reason not to rain down blows on the "best" hit location all the time, and cause to pause and look at your enemy. What trips me up when writing rules like this is the added choice-making and/or dice-rolling – new and even intermediate players find that annoying, not fun or liberating. Even my "roll 1d each turn" could be seen as a nuisance. I often wonder if GURPS needs a "Man to Man 2013" game for folks who actually enjoy such detail, leaving GURPS per se with the basic combat system.

    1. I think that a sequel or expansion to GURPS Martial Arts:Gladiators which took rules/concepts like this one would have niche but strong interest. I can totally see Vaclav's gladiator game rocking out with this.

      But yeah, I think that the real key is what I added in my comment/reply to Ben above: if it takes ten or twenty minutes to cycle through all the combatants, each second of "I Wait/Evaluate/Whatever" is a punishment. I tend to LIKE rolling dice, and I feel that it makes my turn more worthwhile if I can do so. That's why I suggested in a previous post that Aim be a die roll with MoS granting the Acc bonus, rather than a flat add (that has problems too, of course. If it didn't it would be Pyramid rather than Blog!). But ultimately, if you take one of the ten or fifteen turns you get do actually do something in a combat to sit around and not have much happen, it had better be darn worth it.

    2. I do have to wonder if it would more adequately incentivize evaluates and waits if we applied a) more realistic limits to skill (super-human characters often act in super-human ways, after all, and what we're looking at is more realism) and b) more accurate situational penalties for things like footing, lighting and the like. Every fight I've ever been in has assumed perfect lighting conditions, and just imposing torchlight penalties is enough to make that +3 pretty damned useful.

    3. You can get through a lot of combat if you stick to only the basics. I do for my DF game.

      As for Evaluate and complex mechanisms, I'd just say that Evaluate as a roll isn't bad. You can treat it halfway as an offensive and defensive feint, really. Roll a Per-based combat skill roll vs. the opponent you are watching, who rolls the better DX or IQ based weapon skill (you're rolling to see what you see, he's rolling to keep his intentions covered with experience or just not leaving any due to skill and agility). If you win, his defenses against you and his next attack against you suffer half the margin of success.

      So you have a Per-based Broadsword-15, he's got Stat+2 in Broadsword and DX 12 and IQ 10. He rolls vs. a 14. You roll a 10, he rolls an 11. You win by 2, so he's at -1 to defend against your next attack and -1 to hit you.
      Just a wild idea thrown out there.

      In fact, Evaluate could simply be used as a Per-based Defensive Feint, if you want it to suck less and get used more. Defensive Feint is underused, and Evaluate isn't that exciting.

  5. I ran some of these ideas past my group tonight, and one of my players (who is new to GURPS) came up with the idea that Evaluate bonus could be applied to your next attack or defense roll. The reasoning that studying the enemy's movements should prepare someone for an attack. Perhaps even allowing the player to keep the bonus if used on a counter attack.

    After thinking on this some more, I started to feel that this comes down to melee/unarmed fighters taking some form of WAIT: "wait for an opening or an attack."

    Perhaps this is like a Per based feint roll where the margin of victory is added to the player's skill. (that might be too powerful, maybe only 1/2 the MoV).

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